In the run-up to the 1997 Westminster election, the Labour Party used play over and over the pop tune Things Can Only Get Better by D-Ream. It was a bouncy, driving number and it caught something of the rising hopes of the Labour Party at the time. Is it possible that the Fianna Fail party have been sitting in smoke-filled rooms for the last couple of years, listening to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass? If they have, it’s worked. According to the last opinion poll, Fianna Fail were at 26% - the most popular political party in the twenty-six counties.
You heard me - Fianna Fail are top of the heap. Ahead of everyone, including Fine Gael (25%) and Sinn Féin (18%), with the Labour Party vanishing at speed with 10%. That’s Fianna Fail, the party that lost 51 seats in the general election in 2011, the party that arranged for the twenty-six counties to morph from Celtic Tiger to €85 billion-in-debt arthritic mouse. The party whose very name, two short years ago, was enough to bring the southern electorate out in hives. How did they do it, you may be wondering. How did they climb out of the pit that just two years ago looked as though it might be their grave?
Well, there are a number of reasons. One is their leader. Brian Cowen was generally acknowledged to be a smart man but he looked...rough. Biffo, they called him, and Fianna Fail couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. So they installed instead Micheál Martin. Micheál is the opposite of Biffo. He’s a soft-boiled-egg man. Close your eyes and you could be listening to Jack Lynch. Or even, accents aside, Enda Kenny. Both guys are difficult to hate. It can be done but you have to work at it. A bare 1% separates their parties and you could say the same thing about their leaders. Peas from the same pod.
While the two parties grew from opposing sides in the Civil War, that was a long time ago. Now, it’s the similarities between them that impress. Remember how Fianna Fail warned that, due to the mess they’d made of things, hair-shirts were going to be the order of the day? And Fine Gael threw its collective hands up in horror, before winning the election and implementing those very same policies. A final binding element for both men and their parties? They are united in detestation of Sinn Féin.
That’s because Sinn Féin could do the one thing successive governments in the south have been desperately trying to avoid: bring the north down south. Not literally but by being an all-Ireland party, by walking in muddy boots all over the traditional carpet of southern politics, by raising the north as an issue in the Dail. Sinn Féin have done terrible things to the blood pressure of Enda and Micheál and even little Eamon.
So. Is that it? Will Fianna Fáil arise from their political dead and win power next time out with an electorate sickened by the gap between Fine Gael rhetoric pre- the 2011 election and Fine Gael action post- the 2011 election? Who can say? Sometimes it seems that much of the electorate in the south is suffering from political Alzheimer’s, given its readiness to forget the truly mortal sins of the Soldiers of Destiny. Maybe, when the next general election rolls around, Fianna Fail will return to power as though nothing had changed. If Peter Robinson could survive Irisgate and those 40,000 leaflets, why not Fianna Fail, despite their taking a wrecking ball to the south’s economy?
But Sinn Féin can take one consolation from that 18%. There was a time when wise heads in the north explained that the Shinners had peaked in Northern politics when they hit 19%. There were people who predicted - even bet money - that Sinn Féin would lose their remaining four seats in the 2007 election to the Dail.
The one thing we can be sure of is that we’ll be surprised. Otherwise we’d scrap elections and save money by using opinion polls instead. Scottish independence would be dead as a dodo, the Irish border would be permanently in place, and we could all stay at home and watch the Brit Awards. But we don’t and we won’t, because, as Chuck Berry sang so long ago, “You Never Can Tell”.